Wednesday, October 24, 2007


TREE OF SMILES


I was out walking along the roadside the other morning scavenging for mukago, which I've posted about here and here and elsewhere, when I saw a mother lode of the silver-pearly goodies dangling down on the strings of their dried vines from the tall mountain bamboo that covers the land on the other side of the road from us. The plant itself vines its way up through the thick bamboo and canopies out across the top, using the slender bamboo stalks as an ideal support.

I knew that there were plenty of mukago up there that, if not harvested, would soon fall to the ground and get eaten by inoshishi (wild pigs) scavenging beneath (which, to any mukago fancier, is the true-life version of pearls before swine), so I started walking along the road and pulling on the hanging vines to tip the bamboo down to where I could get at the some of the treasures beaded among the leaves along the edge of the top.

So all the way along the road I was reaching and looking up, and at one point back in there I saw a bunch of big white smiles up there among the leaves of a low tree shielded from the road by the bamboo. It was an akebi vine threading the tree, and being secluded it was full of smiling fruit that humans along the road could not see (unless they tipped down the bamboo), and that the monkeys, for some delightful reason, had not yet found.

Since this wild fruit prefers monkeys as consumers and generally grows too high for humans to reach - as in this case - I went and got the high ladder and my clippers, and with a bag hooked to my belt climbed up to gather the happy fruit. Being up there among all those sweet smiles was very pleasant to the monkey in me. I clipped off the ready ones and some of the near-ready ones to see if they would ripen anyway, and to get another jump on the creatures that are still completely monkeys.

Though monkeys and laddered humans are the only large creatures that can reach the really high fruit, akebi prefer monkeys as their consumers, which explains why the fruit is designed the way it is, so that the eater can't separate the hard seeds (which resemble apple seeds) from the sweet, custardy flesh. That is also why akebi hide high up in the shadows and, when ready-to-eat, open up wide in a monkey smile, the monkeys then grabbing the magnanimous fruit and scarfing it then and there, subsequently spreading the seeds from the treetops throughout the forest as they go, whereas picky humans take the fruit home and spit the seeds into a garbage bag, which is new to the akebi evolutionary experience.

The flavor of akebi is also unique in that there is none, because flavor doesn't matter to those who are still completely monkeys: sweet is enough. It's the only sweet fruit I can think of that has no flavor at all, which is interesting because as a result, the fruit's appeal to humans as well must rely on its sweetness alone. It is very sweet, therefore, but not cloyingly sweet, as the same degree of cane sugar sweetness, for example, would be.

Also part of the larger picture is that the melting creamy texture of the pulp strongly invites the eater to swallow the sweet mass whole, if one is a monkey (the seeds are too hard to chew) or, if one is a finicky human, to go through all the trouble of slowly swirling the mass around in your mouth, carefully keeping all the seeds in check while letting the custardy portion slowly melt away in a flavorless wash of sweetness that yet... does... taste... remotely... like something... you can't... quite identify as you swirl and ponder, the completed process of thoughtful consumption rewarding you at last with a mouthful of seeds that want to be swallowed.

All of the above factors, in addition to an ultra-brief shelf life, combine to explain why akebi is a traditionally appreciated, countryside sort of fruit that is rarely (if ever?) sold in stores. Every Japanese has heard of akebi, but few city folk nowadays have ever eaten one. Eating akebi is nonetheless a worthy experience in many respects. At several points in the process, by evolutionary design on both sides you are powerfully reflexively moved to just swallow the whole sweet thing, seeds and all, as it calls to the monkey in you, while as a creature of higher intelligence you are moved to consciously and with considerable effort not swallow, by maintaining a sort of a gustatory zen state.

Despite best efforts, however, the human akebi eater always swallows some seeds. They're designed that way after all, to slick right down there unnoticed. Then right away you keep finding another of the sly things (evolution is a sneaky enterprise) tucked away in one or another corner of your mouth, awaiting its chance for escape. There-- that's the last one: no, there's another one!

So I guess maybe the only way to fully enjoy akebi is to be a monkey...




3 comments:

Tabor said...

You too? Our pleasures in the woods this year have been paw paws and persimmons...custardy and FULL of seeds. But no monkeys co-evolved with these trees thankfully.

Val said...

There is a powerful appeal in your description, I yearn to forage for such an interesting and exotic wild harvest. Then I ponder on the English hedgerow - and blackberries and wild damsons dont seem so boring and everyday. Thanks!

Trace said...

How cool, the akebi. And they offer such a big smile..
As always, I love hearing about the monkeys; though I am certain you can become annoyed with them at times.